Talking to Vernon Chatman and John Lee About Season 2 of ‘The Heart, She Holler’
Season 2 of The Heart, She Holler, a Southern gothic melodrama steeped in incest, gore and absurdity, has been two years in the making: Adult Swim greenlit another season right after the live-action show’s initial six-episode run in 2011, but showrunners Vernon Chatman and John Lee (Xavier: Renegade Angel, Wonder Showzen, and the 2002 Snoop Dogg sketch show Doggy Fizzle Televizzle) were tied up in other projects. Plus, Chatman and Lee pointed out, they needed time to “incubate, gestate and barrel-age the season in [their] mindwombs.”
The Heart, She Holler chronicles the ongoing struggle of shamelessly slutty Hurshe (Amy Sedaris) and telekinetically inclined Hambrosia (Heather Lawless) to wrestle control of their late father’s estate, the Heartshe Holler, from their brother Hurlan (Patton Oswalt). Hurlan, a grown man dumber than the walnut he tries for an entire episode to open, muddles through each episode to hilarious, surreal and often cringeworthy results.
Before the show returned last week for its 14-episode second season, I had a chance to speak with Chatman and Lee on the phone about mocking Southerners, recasting Hurshe and growing fond of even their most repugnant characters. Though some of their answers were cryptic, our interview at the very least provides a glimpse into the minds that cooked up this clever nightmare of a show.
So I recently finished season 1 and it was ridiculous. What did I just watch?
Vernon Chatman: You tell us.
John Lee: Yeah, we’ll ask you about it. Did you figure out the puzzle? Did you figure out what the show means? There are clues, and there is an answer at the end.
Chatman: You should have more questions than answers, but you should have bigger answers than you’ve ever had in your life. You’ve got to just sit with it for awhile, stew in it. When you watched the show, were you immersed in a stew?
I just want to know what’ll happen next. Boss Hoss’s corpse being reanimated seems like a game changer.
Lee: That is, I think, the one major difficulty that we always create for ourselves. We create these sort of terrible truths —
Chatman: Painting ourselves into a corner of profundity.
Lee: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. In creating our shit-stained, surreal mythologies, we trap ourselves, and we have to desperately find every little nook and cranny of an exit. And we found an exit.
You’ve said the show is less about making fun of the South than it is about making fun of hipsters’ attitudes about the South.
Chatman: It’s definitely making fun of the South, but it’s also making fun of people who make fun of the South.
Have Southerners ever given you feedback?
Lee: No, they historically don’t have a good vehicle for communication. They don’t have cable, eyes, brains for processing, or command of the English language. We’ve been to the South — have you been to the South?
Yeah, I went to college there. I didn’t have Internet access for four years.
Lee: [Laughs] See?
Chatman: Yeah, there you go. I’m in South Carolina right now.
Lee: But the show’s not necessarily about the South. It’s about a dark thicket in the soul of Americans and man. And by man, I mean man and woman.
Chatman: And by man and woman, you mean Southern people.
Are you trying to make a commentary on race, class or culture, or should everything be taken at face value?
Lee: The commentary makes itself. We’re just a vessel to get it down, get it into tubes.
Chatman: Yeah, get it in.
Lee: Well, they no longer have tubes in television.
Chatman: They do in the South.
Lee: [Laughs] Yeah, they still do in the South. But why not have all of those things? What’s wrong with all of those things?
What’s going to happen with Hurlan now that he’s retreated to his cave?
Lee: It’s funny, you just provided your own clue in your own answer to the question.
Chatman: Fate is going to happen to him.
Lee: Yeah, and the inevitable. The only thing that could happen to someone in his position will happen.
What does that mean?
Lee: Write it down and read it backwards. Hold up a mirror to it. Are you doing that now? Can you read it back to me?
Chatman: It’s a swastika, isn’t it?
Lee: Why do you keep writing in the shape of a swastika? We looked into your diary, and it’s mostly swastikas.
Chatman: We went to your blog, and all your precious musings are in the shape of a swastika.
I don’t have a blog, guys, so joke’s on you.
Lee: Oh, shit.
Chatman: Hurlan continues to ramble through his life with limited brain cells.
Lee: He does the best job he can.
Chatman: Hurlan finds new levels of dumb, new levels of unforeseen dumb. New dimensions are found.
Lee: Yeah, and it’s through the new dimensions we get to a new evolution, which is a process of backwards evolution.
Why did you recast Hurshe after season 1?
Chatman: Kristen Schaal moved to LA to get into show business.
Lee: It’s the land of dreams.
Chatman: She decided to leave The Heart, She Holler and get into show business, and it looks like it’s working for her. And we were stuck, because there’s not that many Kristen Schaals in the world. Turns out there’s only one, and she’s sort of irreplaceable — so we decided that we would just totally replace her and not rewrite it. And we had a big list of people, none of whom really made us that happy, and one person who we thought would never do it. And we just didn’t even think to ask. And then we decided, well, we might as well ask. Even though she doesn’t do TV, and she’s too good for us.
Lee: We didn’t really want to ruin her, but there we are.
Chatman: We didn’t want to ruin her reputation. She’s got a perfect record; everything she’s done has been great. And we didn’t want to drag her down, but she said yes, and so we tricked her. And so that person is Amy Sedaris.
Lee: [Laughs] That was exciting. I didn’t know who it was, at first.
Chatman: Yeah, I haven’t told John because I wanted it to be —
Lee: This is so exciting, Vernon. Wow. It’s hard to replace Kristen — it’s like, who’s the only other person who is so good with their body and their oddness and their sexuality? And it’s Amy Sedaris, and thank you for telling me that. I’m really happy — how was she on set? Was she good?
Chatman: Oh, she was great. Kristen Schaal is so funny and so aggressive. She was a force that would just swipe through any energy and just dominate it with her energy and her sexuality. And with Amy Sedaris, she manages to do all of that incredibly, and then also show this broken side, this self-questioning side, this vulnerability, that’s just really intense. So she brought another dimension to it. And it’s also because in the second season, we brought a little more to the character, as well.
Lee: Would you describe her as sort of like a deep-fried sadness?
Chatman: Yeah, I would say deep-fried sadness with some butter on it. You have any other questions, John?
Lee: Yes, I do. Now, with this second season, what do you think has changed from the first season? What do you think, artistically or structurally — was there any major changes?
Chatman: This is the worst interview question I’ve ever heard.
I just realized you guys haven’t let me say anything in about 10 minutes.
Chatman: Is there someone on the phone? Who is it? Is it Mom? John and I are just trying to do this interview together, and then there’s someone snooping in on this conversation. Is this the NSA?
Lee: Sorry, next question.
Is there any acknowledgement of the casting change in the first episode of season 2?
Lee: Personally, I just learned it right now.
Chatman: You mean, in addition to having 14 episodes with a totally different human being as the character?
I only ask because this is a very soap opera-y show, and on shows like General Hospital, they’ll do the cheesy voiceover announcement.
Lee: Right. You know, we have Amber Tamblyn on this season. She’s in one episode.
Chatman: We didn’t do that trope because we didn’t have time. Real soap operas have one advantage: All they want to do is kill as much time as possible every day, because they’ve got to fill five hours a week. We have 11 minutes and 20 seconds for a show, and we couldn’t take the three seconds out to explain to people that there’s a totally different human being —
Lee: That this is played by actresses, not by actual people —
Chatman: Because none of the people are actually those people.
Lee: [Laughs] We did a cut where we explained that she was somebody else, but then we felt we had to explain that all these people were not who they were.
Who else guest stars this season?
Chatman: Oh, boy. We got a lot of new people.
Lee: Oh, boy, yeah.
Chatman: I mean, listen. David Cross is in a number of episodes. He plays Jacket, the bartender. And he’s married to Direne, the woman who owns the convenience store. So he’s in a bunch of episodes, and he’s always super hilarious. And we have people such as Steve Cirbus, who played Sergei in Delocated, and he plays a totally different type of person and he’s incredible —
Lee: We got Elaine May. That’s just the name of the goat we got. They just called her Elaine May, so it’s not the real Elaine May.
Chatman: Yeah, that was the closest we could get.
Does Kurt Braunohler [whose character died in the season 1 finale] come back as a different character?
Chatman: No, Kurt Braunohler is dead.
Lee: Yeah, that’s your scoop. You better get that out right now.
Chatman: Braunohler was great, he’s really funny. We don’t have as many guest stars this time because we figured we might as well use the cast we have, because we have such a huge cast —
Lee: The people we already hired.
Chatman: There’s Leo Fitzpatrick, who’s a great actor. He’s funny in such an unlikely and sort of oddly sincere way. And Michael Laurence, who’s a real theater actor and really plays things way too quiet and respectful for such a creep. And Jen Regan, who plays Direne, who’s sort of a —
Lee: Are you just reading the IMDB?
Chatman: I’m trying to, it just isn’t loading.
What about a Snoop Dogg cameo?
Lee: Sadly, the town doesn’t allow his type. They have their rules. All towns have their rules.
Chatman: We have this real problem because the more we do the show, the more we start to really, genuinely like these people, but then we start to forget that they’re horrible, horrible racists. They don’t like any black people, any Mexicans, anybody of color, anybody gay except for the one servicing them at that time —
Lee: At that particular truck stop.
Is there a season three in the cards?
Chatman: Which cards?
Lee: Yeah, which cards?
Chatman: Are these credit cards?
All the cards. Any card.
Lee: Yes and no.
Chatman: Would you ask a woman who had just pushed a baby out, just as the toes of the baby are coming out, would you ask that woman, “Are you thinking about having another kid?”
Chatman: You would? You monster. Let these be the last words of the interview: you monster.
The Heart, She Holler airs weeknights at 12:30 a.m. on Adult Swim.
Meera Jagannathan is a writer and grad student living in Syracuse, N.Y.